I spent the first 36 years of my life living in the UK, more than half of which was spent in and around London. As such, I have a deep personal affinity to Gin, that wonderful, complex, delicious spirit made famous by the Dutch and infamous by Hogarth. Gin has recently enjoyed a significant resurgence in popularity, gradually extricating itself from the caustic syrups of the 70s and into the most sophisticated concoctions of mixologists worldwide.
There are numerous reasons why I like gin. It's incredibly versatile, and can be drunk in many forms: with a mixer such as tonic or soda, as a base for classic or contemporary cocktails such as negronis, martinis or gimlets, or even neat (try a glass of Old Tom over ice next time the nights draw longer). Primarily though, gin's allure lies in the glorious, deep variety of tastes. From the driest of London gins to the complex, tea-like Golden Moon, there really is nothing like it. I think gin should be regarded by the same sommelier standards as wines and whisky. It's on it's way, but it still has some distance to go.
So by now you should be wondering what this has to do with Industrial Design. It's an analogy that I've been mulling over for some time and it has to do with the ways in which we approach the creation of contemporary objects. Let me explain by way of vodka.Vodka is made by pot-distilling a fermented grain mash from barley—though the process itself simply needs a starch, so potatoes, beets, etc., can be substituted—which is then filtered through charcoal and bottled. Throughout the process, the distiller aims to create the purest possible alcohol, removing any impurities, coloration or taste. Vodka is simply ethanol, and whilst it has its purpose, it significantly misses the mark in elegance or taste. Gin, however, undergoes another transformative process. Once the pure liquor is extracted, the master distiller adds a finely balanced recipe of extra ingredients. Typically this starts with juniper berries (which are not actually berries), and is followed by seeds, citrus rinds, fragrant barks, spices, wildflower blossoms and other botanicals. These extra ingredients are added to the ethanol and then redistilled a second time. The resulting mixture is a delicate, fragrant, wonderful liquid, with all the elegant balance of a fine perfume: Gin.
So, back to design...
Over the last decade or so, there has been a trend within industrial design to refine and reduce, borne from classic minimalist dogma trodden by Dieter Rams and redelivered by Ive. We have become attuned to reduction as a means of progress in our art. Everything is removed, streamlined and simplified to create an object pure in essence and interaction. We cherish such objects and marvel at their purity, but all too often they lack heart. They seem empty, perfunctory, cold. They are vodka.
By simply following a path of endless reduction we distill out every impurity, we filter every trace of individuality, every element that deviates from the drive towards that (false) grail: a simple singular expression of form and interaction. Whilst the technical prowess needed to achieve such simplicity is significant and admirable, I am often struck by just how dull the results can be.
By designing in a reductive manner, I believe there is often a necessity for a subsequent distillation process. Once the primary design cycle is complete, and prototypes begin arriving, it's vitally important to revisit the entire experience, to zoom out and re-examine what has been achieved. Following this examination we then have an opportunity to add our 'botanicals' to improve the stark proposition before us, then redistill the object for a second time.
I admit this is a strange and counterintuitive twist in the design process. It is preferable to define the entire object and experience at the outset, rather than add time, complexity and headaches later, but in my experience it's only when design work approaches a nadir of completion that the need for these 'botanicals' becomes evident. When presented with a 'nearly complete' object we should allow time for more complex thought patterns to emerge. These can be simple things: little changes or additions to software, hardware or tone, but they are vitally important to create depth in the final offering. In short, we turn vodka into gin, which results in a more rounded, elegant and satisfying experience.
The Perfect Negroni:
- Take one measure of Cocchi Vermouth, one measure of Campari and one measure of Dry Gin (try Leopolds or Sipsmiths). - Pour over ice in a mixing glass. - Stir for a moment. - Take an Old Fashioned glass and strain the cocktail over a single large ice cube. - Garnish with a slice of orange zest. - Turn off the TV.
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I'd love to read a follow up article that compares product design examples of "gin" and "vodka" â€” Thonet chair v. Emeco 1006, perhaps?